Posts Tagged ‘Twitter Diplomacy’

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Twenty Years of Digital Diplomacy: Part 2

October 23, 2015

In my previous post I noted that the way that we talk about ‘digital diplomacy’ is still the same despite 20 years of practical experience but why is this?

An obvious explanation that follows from the ‘tech narrative’ is that the world is changing fast and that MFAs are changing more slowly so they still have the same need for adaptation. There’s something to this but this is claim that needs to be more critically evaluated.  For instance MFA web sites have already become thorougly institutionalized so it’s nothing have happened.  I’m always suspicious of claims that organizations have to adapt to their environment without clear evidence about mechanisms.  For instance is it possible to show that MFAs that have been laggards in adopting digital diplomacy have performed worse that those that have been more enthusiastic adopters in any area other than adoption of digital media?

There’s also a political-cultural dimension in the interaction between the prevalent social narrative of technological transformation and the popular image of the diplomat as a reactionary. This image long predates Twitter – the French and Russian Revolutions proclaimed the death of diplomacy, revolutionary America and revolutionary Iran two centuries apart tried to transform it – but in hard times digital diplomacy becomes a way that MFAs can signal their relevance to sceptical politicians and publics. For instance the relationship between US Secretaries of State and Congress often (eg Rice and Clinton) seems to resolve into a ‘money for modernization’ deal. In this situation ‘digital diplomacy’ becomes a symbol of modernization and modernity.

How can we push the discussion of digital diplomacy forward?  I think the key requirement is move ‘digital’ out of the narrative of technology and reembed it in the reality of diplomacy and foreign policy. In working on the comparative history of public diplomacies  I’ve been very struck by the persistence of patterns, institutions and ideas in national diplomacies. Although in tracking developments across time you see national diplomatic systems dealing with similar issues the continuities are also very obvious.   These continuities come from international factors (relationships, geopolitical situations) and domestic ones (the national political economy, national self-conceptions, the broader mode of governance) the result is the persistence of national styles. From an analytical point of view this tells me that there cannot be a singular ‘digital diplomacy’. From a prescriptive point of view it suggests that instead of attempting to conform to some abstract model of what a digital diplomacy should be MFAs should focus on embracing digital in a way that works for them.

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Digital Diplomacy: Forget the Hype and Just Get on With It

September 10, 2013

I’ve been meaning to write about digital diplomacy for a while.  Two weeks ago Ben Scott (formerly one of Hilary Clinton’s crew at State) and I , were in Tallinn to talk  to Estonian ambassadors and this forced me to think about the issue.  I’ve always thought of myself as a bit of a sceptic about the whole thing but perhaps less so than I realized.

The argument for digital diplomacy typically advances in two parts.  1. The world is being revolutionized by digital technology.  2. Diplomats should use social media.  What I’m sceptical about is actually 1 but I’m totally on board with 2.

The problem with the revolution argument is that it really depends on the loss of perspective that I commented on here.  The reason that diplomats should use social media is exactly the same reason why I don’t think that there’s a revolution:  diplomacy has always been a matter of networks.  Diplomats are expected to build networks in order to find out what’s going on and create influence.  Ben made the valuable point that one of the great contributions of social media, particularly Twitter is as a tool for listening, by identifying important voices in country it offers a rapid way to get a broader understanding of what’s going on from there they can think about intervening in debates.  As a mode of gathering information and insight  It’s exactly the same thing, as  that staple of diplomatic routine, reading the papers

There is a bit of a digital diplomacy backlash going on at the moment (examples here and here) but the problem is not with the practice but with the overblown claims derived from the radical technology literature which tend to abstract the impact of digital media from any social, cultural or political context.

The point is not that social media changes nothing but it is better seen as part of the evolution of diplomatic practice. In a way the potential of Twitter is that it allows a diplomat to more rapidly explore the networks of their host society than it would be possible to do using other methods.  Jules Jusserand was the French Ambassador in Washington from 1902 to 1925 if you don’t have 23 years to build your networks maybe twitter is a useful accelerant to the process.

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The FCO’s Digital Strategy

February 8, 2013

Just before Christmas the FCO issued its digital strategy.   This isn’t a long document so a few comments about context, content and the broader implications for UK diplomacy.

The key contextual point is that it is a response to November’s  Government Digital Strategy.  This is chiefly concerned with the improvements in services to citizens and financial savings (£1.7-1.8 billion pa) that would ensue if transactions were delivered on-line and if people chose to use them. All government departments were required to produce their own strategies.   Hence the FCO strategy is not an outpouring of spontaneous digital excitement but a response to a government level initiative.  As the GDS points out the majority of central government transactions with the public are done by seven departments involving taxes, motor vehicles, pensions and similar, while the FCO does transactions through its consular work its diplomatic activity doesn’t fit so neatly into the framework.  As a result the FCO digital strategy is much more detailed when going through the  list of consular functions, the extent of digitization and the possibilities for expansion.

However, if you’re reading this blog I suspect you’re more interested in the policy and diplomatic bits of the report than certificates of no-impediment and why they have to be on paper.

In assessing where they are the report notes that the primary use of ‘digital’ has been as  a communications tool  but argues that they are extending it into new areas using it for

  •  ‘[F]ollowing and predicting developments’ as they did during the Libya crisis and the Arab Spring where they used sentiment analysis  to produce daily updates circulated around Whitehall (It’s not clear whether they actually used specialist tools for doing this or just read tweets)
  • Formulating policy – giving the example of consultations around a recent white paper on policy towards the UK overseas territories
  • Implementing policy – the example is of their UK for Iranians website (sounds like message delivery to me)
  • Influencing and indentifying who to influence, here they give a big shout out to the Ambassador in the Lebanon Tom Fletcher who seems to be the current FCO digital stakhanovite
  • Communicating and engaging on foreign policy – the foreign secretary answers questions on twitter.

By item four on this list I think that they are repeating themselves.

What do they want to achieve:  spread ‘digital’ across the organization and use it to deliver to deliver more open policy formulation and increase transparency.

In order to achieve this there will be a digital champion at FCO board level,  more training and access to digital kit  – for instance through adjusting security settings on the network to allow easier access to social media tools.

A few quick observations

The basic direction in FCO communications is to get social media more integrated into the everyday work of the organization hence the move away from the centralized communications directorate.

There is a move to get greater integration between ‘digital’ and news.  The hope is that the integration will produce a better news operation.   Historically, the news function has been at the core of UK public diplomacy so it’s important that the drive for digital helps this rather than undermines it.  The number of people who will potentially be reached by working through media organizations dwarfs the numbers of people who are ever likely to follow  British diplomats on Twitter and Facebook.

Having identified online influencers during the Arab Spring what did the FCO do?  In ‘some cases invited them to meet with us in person’ – seems sensible to me.   The key point is that diplomacy has always been about crafting relationships and maintaining networks.  New technology is creates new opportunities for doing this.  The key choice in diplomacy is to identify which relationships and networks are the ones to use in each case. The challenge is to make sure that ‘digital’ adds options without damaging the ability to make use of existing opportunities

Finally, the document never defines what ‘digital’ is. Is is it a tool?  Is it an ideology?  Is it both?

UPDATE: There’s an interesting post on the FCO’s Digital Diplomacy blog about about the role of regional digital hubs in supporting the work of the embassies.  Because of the location in different timezones there is a always 24 support available.

 

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A Post American Foreign Policy for the UK?

July 1, 2010

Lot’s of exciting mildly interesting stuff coming up here in the next few days… but in the mean time a few observations on William Hague’s speech today on Britain’s Foreign Policy in a Networked World.  This has been noted in  some quarters as British Foreign Policy for a Post American World in the sense that Fareed Zakaria talks about it.

As is traditional in these kind of speeches Hague identifies a number of changes that have occurred in world politics, the emergence of new centres of economic power, the expansion of the circle of international decision making ie more countries matter, complex security threats, and the changing nature of conflict as he say  ‘wars among the people’ (references to Rupert Smith are standard in this context)… but ‘when taken together with the fifth and most striking change of all, the emergence of a networked world, the case for a new approach to the foreign policy of the United Kingdom becomes unanswerable.’

What does Hague mean by a networked world?  I don’t think that this is entirely clear but let’s extract some of the ideas.

1.  ‘For although the world has become more multilateral as I have described, it has also become more bilateral.’  This is a bit of a zen koan  but I think that what he is getting at is that British foreign policy and diplomatic practice has focussed on multilateral issues and fora at the expense of bilateral relations and the quality and strength of issues with particular countries matter.  Hague’s thought continues to identify the US as our most important bilateral relationship.

2. Hague continues:  ‘Today, influence increasingly lies with networks of states with fluid and dynamic patterns of allegiance, alliance and connections, including the informal, which act as vital channels of influence and decision-making and require new forms of engagement from Britain.”  Putting this together with the first point the logic would go something like this:  because decision making is fluid we cannot identify institutional targets for our diplomacy therefore by strengthening our bilateral links with key actors we are in a stronger position to influence these ‘fluid and dynamic patterns’

3. Part of the networked world is about the changing media of communication.

Today Foreign Ministers communicate through formal notes, highly frequent personal meetings, hours a day on the telephone to discuss and coordinate responses to crises, and quite a lot of us communicate by text message or in the case of the Foreign Minister of Bahrain and I, follow each other avidly on Twitter.

4. This is probably the money quote

In recent years Britain’s approach to building relationships with new and emerging powers has been rather ad-hoc and patchy, giving rise to the frequent complaint from such Governments that British Ministers only get in touch when a crisis arises or a crucial vote is needed. This weakens our ability to forge agreement on difficult issues affecting the lives of millions around the world and it overlooks the importance of consistency and personal relationships in the conduct of foreign policy.  In many countries decisions about politics and economics are also often more closely entwined than in Britain, meaning that the absence of strong bilateral relations has the further effect of weakening our position when economic decisions are made.

The solution is better coordination across government both at a strategic level via the new National Security Council.  A second aspect is recognizing the role of government departments other than the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in sustaining relations with other countries and put in place mechanisms to coordinate all this activity so that the UK can actually deliver on decisions about upgrading bilateral relationships.

A couple of thoughts.  It will be interesting to see the extent to which this coordination can actually be achieved.  MFA loss of control is a common theme in the literature going back decades.  The other point is that it is that relationships consume resources (even if  only attention) and create network constraint.  This requires a strategic sense of priorities. Hague is going to be giving another three speeches over the next couple of weeks so maybe we will get something about this.